Archive for the ‘Dorothy Hale’ Category

Madame X at the Met

"Madame X" by American portrait painter John Singer Sargent, 1884

"Madame X" by American portrait painter John Singer Sargent, 1884

In the Metropolitan Museum of New York hangs a seven-foot tall portrait of a rather pale woman in a black velvet evening dress held up by sparkly straps. “Madame X” was painted by the American society painter John Singer Sargent.  The subject of the painting is Madame Virginie Gautreau, a professional beauty, who moved in the top tiers of Paris society and was often mentioned in the scandal sheets for her numerous dangerous indiscretions and passion for self-display. It was 1884 and Madame Gautreau was the Talk of Paris.

It was only a year earlier that John Singer Sargent had met her at a party. Once he laid eyes on her, he knew at once he must paint a portrait of her as an homage to her beauty – and a boost to his lagging career.  He felt that if he painted her, all Parisian society women would flock to his studio demanding that he paint their portraits. Sargent sent word to Madame Gautreau that she must sit for a portrait; she consented, realizing that a rising tide lifts all boats. She, too, needed the publicity to maintain her social superiority. Once they agreed, Sargent began to paint,  devoting himself to capture the “strange, weird, fantastic, curious beauty of that peacock-woman, Mme. Gautreau,” noted one observer.

Madame Gautreau was rumored to take great pains to be beautiful:

Gautreau achieved her affected, highly artificial look with hennaed hair, heavily penciled brows, rouged ears and powdered skin. She was rumored to mix her powder with mauve tint and to ingest arsenic wafers to make her skin more translucent, giving it even more of a bluish-purple tint.

Not all thought she was lovely to look at. She had her detractors. Some said her white pallor and icy charm made her resemble a cadaver.

"Madame X" is shown as it must have originally appeared

"Madame X" is shown as it must have originally appeared

The painting that hangs in the Met today, “Madame X,” however, is not the same Madame X as the one that Sargent painted in 1884 and exhibited in Paris. That image no longer exists. We can only speculate what it looked like. The painting shown to the right here is what it may have looked like. That original, the one exhibited in Paris in 1884, showed Madame Gautreau’s dress with the right strap suggestively falling off her shoulder. (Compare to the painting at the top, the one at the Met. Her right strap, you’ll notice, sits firmly in place.)

When exhibited in Paris, the painting “with the falling strap” created an instant sensation but not in the way Sargent and Gautreau had hoped:

No sooner had the doors of the Palais de l’Industrie in the Champs-Élysées opened on May 1, 1884, than a crowd gathered in front of ”Madame X.” People hooted and pointed the tips of their umbrellas and canes at the painting. ”Look! She forgot her chemise!*” was heard over and over again. The critics were no kinder. ”Of all the undressed women at the Salon this year, the most interesting is Madame Gautreau . . . because of the indecency of her dress that looks like it is about to fall off,” wrote a critic for L’Artist. (*A chemise is a woman’s undergarment, a smock, that is worn under clothing and next to the skin. In that day, a French lady always wore a chemise under a dress.)

The painting was considered too provocative; sex pervaded it. Not even an actress, it was remarked, would wear a dress that shockingly low-cut and snug! And that strap! A little imagination conjured up a scene in which a slight struggle with a lover might knock Madame X’s right strap completely off her shoulder leading to… ! Paris was abuzz with the scandal. Madame Gautreau’s mother demanded that Sargent withdraw the painting from the exhibit. He refused.

John Singer Sargent in Paris studio 1885 with the revised painting of Madame X

John Singer Sargent in Paris studio 1885 with the revised painting of Madame X

The painting, considered a beloved masterpiece today but pornographic by 1884 Parisian standards of decency, was trashed by the Paris critics so badly that Sargent, having lived in Paris for a decade then, was eventually forced to move to London to continue his profession. Sargent revised the painting to show the gown’s right strap securely in place. It is this retouched painting that hangs in the New York Metropolitan today.

Zip ahead to 1938 and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Dorothy Hale was wearing her Madame X dress when she jumped to her death from her penthouse apartment. To learn more, read “Frida Kahlo: The Suicide of Dorothy Hale.”

"The Suicide of Dorothy Hale" by Frida Kahlo, 1938/39

"The Suicide of Dorothy Hale" by Frida Kahlo, 1938/39

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Dorothy Hale and Isamu Noguchi at the premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts, February 7, 1934, Hartford, Connecticut

Dorothy Hale and Isamu Noguchi at the premiere of “Four Saints in Three Acts,” February 7, 1934, Hartford, Connecticut

In 1934, the socialite and actress Dorothy Hale took a road trip through Connecticut with two old friends, writer Clare Boothe Luce and sculptor Isamu Noguchi. They drove in a special car Noguchi had designed with his drinking buddy, futuristic inventor Buckminster Fuller. The car was called the Dymaxion.

The Dymaxion Car

The Dymaxion Car

Buckminster Fuller with his portrait by Isamu Noguchi, 1929, photo by Noguchi

Buckminster Fuller with his portrait by Isamu Noguchi, 1929, photo by Noguchi

The 20-foot long aluminum-bodied Dymaxion car caused a traffic jam wherever it went.  This was between the two world wars when cars were sedans and pick-up trucks. “Bucky” Fuller’s car was shaped like a teardrop and ran on three wheels. It went 90 m.p.h. and was fuel-efficient at 30 m.p.g. The 3-wheeler made a 360-degree turn on a dime. A periscope that came out of the roof gave extra visibility. It seated eleven passengers.

It was the car of the future – for a while. Unfortunately, only three Dymaxion cars were ever produced. Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski bought one. Amelia Earhart was interested in investing. Financing was a problem and Fuller was running out of cash.

Aviator Amelia Earhart

Aviator Amelia Earhart

Any hope of putting the Dymaxion in full-scale production dried up quickly when the car was involved in a fatal accident at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Another car was blamed for the crash but that didn’t stop the negative publicity for the Dymaxion.

Sadly, only one of the Dymaxions exists today. You can view the restored exterior of the car at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. Disappointingly, though, the car windows are painted opaque from the inside to prevent you looking inside. Evidently, the inside was in very bad shape when the car was acquired and little information exists as to its original look in order to guide the museum restoration artists. The rumor is that the car had been used as a chicken coop somewhere in the Midwest before it was discovered, which explains the wrecked state of the interior!

View this youtube video to see the amazing turning radius of the Dymaxion. While you’re viewing, keep a lookout for Amelia Earhart in the back seat.


For more on Dorothy Hale, see my most popular post, Frida Kahlo: The Suicide of Dorothy Hale.”

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Artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

Artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

By the summer of 1938, Frida Kahlo was on her way to being discovered as an artist in her own right, rather than only being referred to as the wife of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. That summer, actor and art collector Edward G. Robinson had traveled to Mexico City just to see her paintings and had paid $200 each for four of them. Frida was thrilled. She had sold only a few of her paintings so far and had been content to just give them away. She later wrote of the Robinson sale:

“For me it was such a surprise that I marveled and said, “This way I am going to be able to be free; I’ll be able to travel and do what I want without asking Diego for money.”

She and Diego had become increasingly estranged because of his many illicit extramarital affairs, including one with Frida’s sister Cristina. Frida was heartsick by Diego’s infidelities and retaliated by having multiple affairs of her own, with both men and women. Despite their discord, they remained deeply in love. Frida and Diego made up one of those married couples who could neither stay together nor apart. By the summer of 1939, they would be divorced – only to remarry a year later.

"Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (Between the Curtains)" 193

“Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (Between the Curtains)” by Frida Kahlo, 1937

That November, Frida Kahlo traveled to New York City for her first one-person exhibition of her paintings, held at the Julien Levy Gallery, confident in her new status as celebrated artist. As always, her exotic Zapotec clothing and heavy jewelry created a buzz in the press. Her show was a great success. Time magazine noted that “the flutter of the week in Manhattan was caused by the first exhibition of paintings by famed muralist Diego Rivera’s…wife, Frida Kahlo.” Frida Kahlo’s hand, bedecked with huge rings, adorned a cover of Vogue.

Notables such as artist Georgia O’Keeffe attended the gallery exhibit as did playwright and former editor of the fashion magazine Vanity Fair Clare Boothe Luce.

Claire Booth Brokaw (Luce) (1903-1987) as photographed by Cecil Beaton for the August 1934 issue of Vanity Fair

Claire Boothe Brokaw (Luce) (1903-1987) as photographed by Cecil Beaton for the August 1934 issue of Vanity Fair

Luce remembered the occasion well:

“The exhibition was crowded. Frida Kahlo came up to me through the crowd and at once began talking about Dorothy’s suicide [Dorothy Hale was a friend of both Kahlo and Luce’s].…Kahlo wasted no time suggesting that she do a recuerdo of Dorothy. I did not speak enough Spanish to understand what the word recuerdo meant….I thought Kahlo would paint a portrait of Dorothy in the style of her own self-portrait [dedicated to Trotsky][see above], which I bought in Mexico….

Suddenly it came to me that a portrait of Dorothy by a famous painter friend might be something [Dorothy’s] poor mother might like to have. I said so, and Kahlo thought so, too. I asked the price, Kahlo told me, and I said, ‘Go ahead. Send the portrait to me when it is finished. I will then send it on to Dorothy’s mother.’”

Dorothy Hale was a sometime actress, Ziegfeld showgirl, and socialite. Hale’s life had gone downhill seven years earlier after her husband Gardner Hale was killed when his car drove off a 500 foot cliff in Santa Maria, California. Hale’s career as an actress was drying up; she was failing her screen tests. She was in severe financial trouble and living on charity from friends.  On October 20, 1938, Hale assembled her close friends for a party at her New York apartment and announced that she was taking a long trip. The farewell party lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Hale stayed up writing good-bye letters to her friends and drinking the last of the vodka. A little before  6 a.m. on the 21st,  Hale put on her black velvet dress and pinned on it a corsage of small yellow roses sent to her by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. She then climbed onto the windowsill of her luxury high-rise apartment suite and jumped to her death.

"The Suicide of Dorothy Hale" by Frida Kahlo, 1938/39

“The Suicide of Dorothy Hale” by Frida Kahlo, 1938/39

From the encounter between Luce and Kahlo at the gallery exhibit arose one of Frida Kahlo’s most shocking and controversial paintings, “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale” (1938/39). Kahlo painted Dorothy Hale as she jumped, fell, and landed, dead and bloody, on the concrete walk outside her apartment building. Blood-red lettering at the bottom of the retablo details the tragedy in Spanish:

“In New York City on the 21st of October 1938, at 6:00 in the morning, Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself from a very high window in the Hampshire House. In her memory, this portrait was executed by Frida Kahlo.”

Luce recalls the horror she felt when the painting was delivered to her home and she first laid eyes on it.

“[W]hen I pulled the painting out of the crate…I felt really physically sick. What was I going to do with this gruesome painting of the smashed corpse of my friend, and her blood dripping down all over the frame? I could not return it – across the top of the painting there was an angel waving an unfurled banner which proclaimed in Spanish that this was ‘The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, painted at the request of Clare Boothe Luce, for the mother of Dorothy’. I would not have requested such a gory picture of my worst enemy, much less of my unfortunate friend.”

Luce wanted to have the painting destroyed, but was dissuaded by friends. Instead, she had sculptor and friend Noguchi paint over the angel with the banner and gave the painting to a friend.

Luce couldn’t have known at the time that Kahlo was in a desperate state of mind as she always was when she was afraid of losing Diego. At the time she painted “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale,” Kahlo herself was having repeated thoughts of committing suicide.

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

For more on Dorothy Hale, read my post, “Dorothy Hale and the Dymaxion Car.”

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